EU parliamentary democracy: how representative? - CEPS

No 2019/07, May 2019

                               EU parliamentary democracy:
                                        how representative?
                                                                                            Sophia Russack

To what extent does the European Parliament really represent EU citizens? This paper first
briefly introduces the most crucial characteristics of the EP (with regards to its internal
organisation, its rights and tasks, as well as the electoral procedure), and then highlights the
most important differences between the EP and its national counterparts: how national parties
translate into European groupings; the (dis)connection between the European executive and
legislative branches; and electoral (dis)connections. Finally, it investigates the idea for
institutional reform introduced to improve the representative character of the EP – the
Spitzenkandidaten procedure. It finds that the attempt to transform the EU (as a hybrid sui
generis entity) into a full fledged parliamentary system does not make the EP a better
representative of the EU electorate.

     Sophia Russack is a Researcher at CEPS Institutions unit.
     This paper is a chapter in the book Representative Democracy in the EU: Recovering Legitimacy which is
     published with Rowman & Littlefield International in May 2019, as part of the “Towards a Citizens’ Union”
     (2CU) project of the European Policy Institutes Network (EPIN), co-funded by the Erasmus+ Jean Monnet
     Programme of the European Commission.
     CEPS Policy Insights offer analyses of a wide range of key policy questions facing Europe. As an institution,
     CEPS takes no position on questions of European policy. Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed
     are attributable only to the author in a personal capacity and not to any institution with which she is
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Introduction ..................................................................................................................................... 1
1.      The EU’s representative democracy: the European Parliament .......................................... 1
     Internal organisation ................................................................................................................... 1
     The EP’s long road to becoming co-legislator............................................................................ 2
     Democratic oversight .................................................................................................................. 3
     The right of initiative ................................................................................................................... 3
     Electoral system .......................................................................................................................... 4
     Second order national elections ................................................................................................. 5
     Trend development: 2014 and 2019 elections.......................................................................... 5
2.      The EP and national parliaments: different institutional ‘DNA’ ........................................... 5
     National parties and Europarties ................................................................................................ 6
     (Dis)connection between the executive and legislative............................................................ 6
     Electoral (dis)connection ............................................................................................................ 7
3.      The Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidate) procedure ............................................................. 8
Conclusion...................................................................................................................................... 10
References ..................................................................................................................................... 12
EU parliamentary democracy: how representative?
                                          Sophia Russack
                          CEPS Policy Insights No. 2019-07 / May 2019


EU integration is occurring against a background of established constitutional democracies
(Fossum, 2015, p. 802). Therefore, representative democracy in a multi-level governance EU
involves the national as well the EU level. To analyse the state of European democracy, both
the national parliaments of the respective EU member states as well as the European
Parliament (EP) need to be considered.
National parliaments are affected by the development of a system of representation at the EU
level (Fossum, 2015, p. 802). Their role in the process of European integration has changed
over time and while they have always been responsible for holding their own national
governments to account, since Lisbon they have also been able to become more actively
involved in EU decision-making. Next to the importance of national parliaments in the realm of
EU democracy, the EU has established a system of democratic governing institutions at the
European level, with the EP as the first and only directly elected supranational assembly in the
world (Hix & Høyland, 2013, p. 171). While national parliaments and their involvement in EU
affairs are investigated in the other contributions in this volume, this chapter focuses on their
European counterpart.
The point of departure is the assumption that the EP has a very different institutional ‘DNA’
compared to national parliaments. Observers should therefore not base their assessment of
the EP and its democratic character on the same criteria as for national parliaments. The EU
treaties prescribe that “the European Parliament shall be composed of representatives of the
Union’s citizens” (Article 14 TEU). But how representative are the members of the EP and the
institution as a whole?

1.       The EU’s representative democracy: the European Parliament

Internal organisation
The current Parliament consists of 751 seats, which is the maximum prescribed by the EU
treaties, with a minimum of six and a maximum of 96 parliamentarians representing a single
member state (Article 14 TEU, the exact distribution is regulated by a Council decision). 1
Although MEPs are elected on their nationality, once elected and inside the EP, different
dynamics are in play: they are organised in ‘political groups’, which are structured according to
political orientation, not nationality. These political groups (mostly) correspond to the
traditional left-right divide and are home to the parties elected at member state level. In the



current 8th European Parliament, we find the European People’s party (EPP) as the traditional
centre-right block, which comprises most European Christian Democrats and conservative
parties; the traditional centre-left block which brings together European labour parties,
Socialists and Social Democrats (S&D); the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
(ALDE); the European Greens/European Free Alliance, as well as the European United
Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL). Besides these five ‘established’ groups, the EP also includes
party groups widely considered as Eurosceptic: the quite radical Europe of Freedom and Direct
Democracy (EFDD) and the Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF); as well as the more mildly
Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). These political groups tend to be (to
varying degrees) critical of the EU’s (supranational) powers or nostalgic for the protective role
of the sovereign nation-state, although we also find such positions to the left of the spectrum.
Differing attitudes towards EU integration, migration and national identity generate deep
divides between these parties (von Ondarza & Schenuit, 2018, p. 6).
The political groups are affiliated to so-called Europarties, i.e. transnational, extra-
parliamentary federations of national political parties from several EU member states, united
by political affinity. The Europarties and the political groups cooperate closely with one
another, though they are not identical. 2 Their relation to each other is similar to that of the
parties and parliamentary factions at the national level.
These political groups never display the same degree of party discipline as is customary at
national level. We know that some groups show more party discipline (traditionally the bigger
ones, such as the EPP), some groups show less (usually the smaller ones, according to
VoteWatch). When it comes to MEPs’ decision-making, different dynamics are in play: not only
the party affiliation, but also personal preference, nationality, as well as institutional interest
all have an impact on voting behaviour. The coalitions are thus less rigid at the EU level.

The EP’s long road to becoming co-legislator
The European Parliament has undergone a remarkable development since its first elections in
1979. With every treaty change it has extended its competences and thereby developed from
the “toothless Assembly” of the European Coal and Steel Community (which was consulted but
could easily be ignored) to an genuine co-legislator with the Council in almost all policy areas,
holding significant budgetary powers (Hix & Høyland, 2013, p. 172). At the very beginning of
European integration, only the Council and the Commission had decision-making powers,
whereas the ‘Common Assembly’ (composed of 78 appointed parliamentarians drawn from the
six founding member states), which at its first session in 1958 renamed itself the ‘European
Parliamentary Assembly’, only possessed advisory competences. 3 Therefore, the institutional
balance used to rest only on the Commission-Council tandem and for a long time the EP had
little relevance in the policymaking process (Wallace, 1985, p. 328).

 On 30 March 1962, the Assembly changed its name to ‘European Parliament’. See J. Jacqué, “Parlement
européen”, Répertoire communautaire Dalloz, December 2011, Art. 2.

Subsequent changes from a bipartite to a tripartite system were mainly due to several rounds
of treaty revision: with the Single European Act in 1987, the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993 and
the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999, the legislative procedure was adapted, from the initial one
of consultation then developing into co-decision. Neither the Nice Treaty, in 2003, nor the
Lisbon Treaty, in 2009, introduced any major changes to the powers of the Parliament in the
EU legislative process, but the Lisbon Treaty established co-decision as the new “ordinary
legislative procedure” of the EU, which is now used for all areas of EU legislation. The Lisbon
Treaty also introduced a unified budgetary procedure, under which the Parliament co-decides
on the entire annual budget (Hix & Høyland, 2013, p. 173).
Besides the increased demand for more democratic modes of accountability in the post-
Maastricht era as integration went well beyond single market integration, two further aspects
led to an increase in the EP’s power. First, the collapse of the Santer Commission in 1999
significantly damaged the standing of the institution and forced it to become engaged in a “self-
conscious period of soul-searching about what its future role in the institutional balance should
be” (Cram, 2002, p. 310). This has led to stronger parliamentary control over the Commission,
with the aim of providing it with democratic accountability. Second, the increased application
of QMV in the Council called for stronger parliamentary control: since the member states could
find themselves in a situation in which they had been outvoted, the demand for democratic
legitimacy through the Parliament increased (Devuyst, 2008, p. 303).

Democratic oversight
Not only has the EP been strengthened as an institution, the ties between the Commission and
the EP were tightened to reinforce democratic control over the executive and to provide it with
legitimacy: when entering office, the Parliament screens candidate Commissioners and
approves the College of Commissioners (Article 17(7) TEU); during its term the EP has the
capacity to hold the Commission to account by posing parliamentary questions (oral, written
and ‘question time’) (Article 230 TFEU). Furthermore, Commissioners and the High
Representative are obliged to report regularly to the EP and appear before committees.
Ultimately, the Parliament even has the power to issue a no confidence vote against the
Commission and thereby force it to step down collectively (Article 17 TEU and Article 234 TFEU).

The right of initiative
Despite the significant increase in power in terms of legislative procedure and budgetary
questions, as well as in exercising control over the executive, the EP lacks a central conventional
parliamentary prerogative: the right of initiative, the right to propose new legislation. According
to the treaties, the sole right to initiate legislative proposals lies with the European Commission
(Article 17(2) TEU). Special rights of initiative for other institutions and the High Representative
only apply in certain specific cases. The Parliament has an ‘indirect right of initiative’, with the
right to invite the Commission to propose legislation, which, however, does not create an
obligation on the Commission to do so. At the national level, both governments and
parliaments are authorised to propose legislation. At the EU level, this right was granted to the

Commission alone so that Community law-making would be more likely to arise out of the
general interest, rather than that of specific member states, so as to avoid the dominance of
larger member states (Devuyst, 2008, p. 252). 4 Despite this solid reason, the non-existent right
to propose new laws constitutes the most significant lack of EP power compared to national

Electoral system
An important step in the empowerment of the EP were the first direct elections in 1979, which
aimed to establish a ‘European’ electoral dimension to directly represent voters at European
level, rather than only indirectly through their respective national governments (Hobolt, 2014,
p. 1530). Nevertheless, there are still great weaknesses, as there is no uniform electoral rule
for the Parliament. MEPs are elected from national lists, according to each country’s election
laws, and national political parties have kept an iron grip on the electoral process. The EU
treaties prescribe that the EP elections shall be held “in accordance with a uniform procedure
in all Member States” (Art. 223 TFEU). However, the only obligation for member states is to use
some form of proportional electoral system. Besides that, it is very much at the discretion of
member states how exactly MEPs are elected. Regarding the ballot structure intra-party seat
allocation, about half of the member states use an open list proportional representation or
single transferable vote (candidate-centred system), the other half uses closed-list proportional
representation (party-centred system) (Høyland, Hobolt, & Hix, 2019, p. 6). In candidate-
centred systems voters can choose between candidates from the same political party. On the
contrary, party-centred systems only allow voters to choose between pre-ordered lists of
candidates presented by parties. As a result of this diversity in electoral laws and organisation,
the EP elections can be described as 28 national elections rather than a transnational contest
(Grabbe & Lehne, 2019). In order to change this, the idea to introduce so-called transnational
lists have been floated. Such a list would contain candidates to be elected in a single
constituency formed from the whole territory of the European Union. This would facilitate
voting for candidates across member states and effectively give citizens two votes: one for their
national or regional constituency, and the other for the EU writ large. First brought before the
EP plenary in 2011, this proposal has repeatedly failed to obtain majority support. The latest
failure was in 2018, 5 meaning there is no transnational list for the 2019 EP elections. However,
the idea probably will be put back on the table prior to the elections in 2024, as it is keenly
supported by French President Emmanuel Macron and also backed by German Chancellor
Merkel. 6

    Bear in mind that at that time only the Council was relevant for decision-making.
 “To put in place transnational lists for European elections as of 2024” is one of the agreed points of the
Meseberg declaration of 19 June 2018:

Second order national elections
A dominant paradigm of research into EP elections is that they are of a ‘second order’ compared
to national elections (Boomgaarden, Johann, & Kritzinger, 2016, p. 130). First, the turnout is
generally lower; second, fringe and new parties (often Eurosceptic parties at the left and right
ends of the spectrum) do better; third, government parties and established parties do worse;
fourth, the issues at stake are usually national ones and the political actors dominating the
electoral campaign are often national politicians not in fact standing for election. Finally, there
is generally lower media attention (Boomgaarden et al., 2016, p. 130). These trends can be
explained by three main issues. First, there is less at stake in European elections, which results
in less politicised campaigns and less voter engagement. Second, because there is less at stake,
voters have less incentive to vote strategically (‘with the head’), or according to their ideological
preferences (‘with the heart’) but instead vote as a protest (‘with the boot’). Third, national
parties in government are punished because they tend to disappoint voters more than parties
in opposition. The second order character of the elections; the grand coalition of the two
biggest political camps; as well as the expansion of the power of the EP over time are the three
trends that have influenced the internal politics of the EP and the position of the parliament in
the EU’s institutional structure since 1979 (Christiansen, 2016).

Trend development: 2014 and 2019 elections
The 2014 EP elections were expected to be different, because of the introduction of the
Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidate) procedure (see section 4) and the fact that the sovereign
debt crisis had made EU politics and governance issues more salient to the public. Yet, these
European topics were still discussed from a national angle, and a ‘European perspective’ was
lacking (Hobolt, 2014, p. 1534). Therefore, the results were not so different from those of
previous election rounds: turnout hit an all-time low (42.6%), governing parties did not do well,
and Eurosceptic parties made major gains. Neither the introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten
process, nor the increased politicisation around the EU, did much to change the second order
nature of EP elections (Van der Brug, Gattermann, & De Vreese, 2016, p. 6).
With regard to the 2019 EP elections, hopes have again been voiced that the current challenges
(e.g. the refugee crisis and Brexit) will make EU affairs more salient for European voters. While
this might hold true, it most likely will not have the effect that some wish for, i.e. that European
voters become more substantially engaged with EU topics. In line with the second order
argument, voters at best use the election to punish their national governments for actions
related to those crises, rather than becoming engaged with the substance and the type of
decisions that are taken by the EU institutions.

2.    The EP and national parliaments: different institutional ‘DNA’

As the other contributions in this volume show, the institutional design of parliaments varies
widely. However, there are certain common standards. So, what marks the EP out, compared
to (diverse) national parliaments? What makes the institutional (and political) difference?

National parties and Europarties
As explained in the previous section, Europarties and the corresponding political groups in the
EP are an assembly of many national parties, rather than genuine transnational parties. These
party groups have hardly any visibility for voters at the national level. When organising their
campaigns, the national parties do not make much effort to change that or to explain how votes
translate from the national to the EU level, because they campaign more successfully under
their name and logo, which has presence and visibility among their respective electorates. As
gaining as many seats and thereby as much influence as possible is the main driving force of
parties, they have no incentive to relate to distant and broadly unknown EU politics.
Second, the EP elections are not so relevant for national elites. The question of who will sit in
the next national government will always be more important. Therefore, much less time and
effort (and money) is invested in campaigns for EP elections than national ones (Grabbe &
Lehne, 2019). The greatest perceived value of European elections is as a midterm poll for
national elections, which is why national politicians campaign on domestic policy platforms.
Hence, national political elites, in particular the national parties, have been unwilling to
contribute to creating a pan-European democratic space (Grabbe & Lehne, 2019).
Third, there seems to be a growing disconnect between national parties and the
Europarties/political families, which makes it even more difficult for voters to understand the
translation from national to EU level. According to the second order national elections
paradigm, parties on the fringes (particularly Eurosceptic parties) in general perform better in
European than in national elections, despite recent successes in some member states.
However, for those parties it is often unclear which group they will join (or create) until after
the elections. Eurosceptics in particular have reshuffled their groups in every legislative term
so far, making it more difficult for voters to understand Europarties and the functioning of the
EP in a broader sense. The established party groups deliver more stability but, as argued above,
not even these campaign in the name of the group.

(Dis)connection between the executive and legislative
Executive power being at stake is a key motivator for voting for a legislature. On the national
level, the power balance in the parliament determines the composition of the government. At
EU level, the EP is not constituted in an ‘government-opposition’ formation. Up until 2014 (and
the debut of the Spitzenkandidaten procedure) there was no connection whatsoever between
the outcome of the EP elections and the composition of the executive, the European
Commission. What is primarily at stake is who will sit in the European Parliament, not who will
We find coalition building among the political groups. These coalitions, however, do not
translate into the constitution of an executive but are instead ad hoc coalitions to pass
legislation. The Commission cannot rely on majorities in the EP in the same way that national
governments can rely on their parliamentary majorities, as arrangements are always on a case-
by-case basis (Christiansen, 2016, p. 1001).

In the past, the so-called grand coalition of the EPP and S&D always succeeded in obtaining a
majority of seats, meaning that these two were able to pass legislation on their own.
Furthermore, they traditionally shared the EU’s political and administrative top jobs among
each other. This is predicted to change in the 2019 elections: according to polls, 7 the two big
parties will need a third force (the ‘kingmaker’) to make decisions. In a more fragmented EP,
with a Eurosceptic ‘opposition’, coalition building will be more important in the post-grand-
coalition period that will follow the 2019 elections.

Electoral (dis)connection
The EP is a legislature with (potentially) competing principles (Koop): the national and EU
arenas. As Hix finds in his comparison to the House of Representatives in the US system of
government, unlike in national parliaments, in the EP there is no powerful “electoral
connection” (Hix & Høyland, 2013, p. 184).
Usually (that is in national electoral systems) voters are able to hold incumbents accountable
for their actions (Van der Brug et al., 2016, p. 1). On the EU level, however, things are different,
as the national arena remains the dominant factor in the re-election of MEPs. Election and re-
election have little to do with the (legislative) behaviour of individual MEPs inside the European
Parliament, or the performance of the EU as a whole, but rather depend on the position of the
MEPs’ national party in the domestic arena (such as the party’s governing status, the timing of
the European Parliament election in the national electoral cycle, and the performance of the
national government) (Hix & Høyland, 2013, p. 184). Voters use the elections to either express
support for a national party or use them to punish the national government (Van der Brug et
al., 2016, p. 1). On the flip-side, that means that there is a discrepancy between the elections
and the (legislative) work of MEPs. They are unlikely to be punished or rewarded for their
(legislative) actions inside the EP, which means that they are hardly accountable to the EU
Along the line of this general trend, the electoral laws of individual member states affect how
present and visible the MEPs are for their constituencies, deriving from differences in ballot
structure and electoral systems (a candidate-centred versus a party-centred approach). If we
assume that re-election is the dominant goal of legislators in the EP and career ambition, if not
the only factor, is an important one in shaping parliamentary behaviour, we can see that some
MEPs are more motivated to reach out to their respective constituencies than others. And that
is for the following reason: due to the low salience of EP elections, voters are largely unaware
of the day-to-day activities of MEPs and therefore need to be convinced by candidate
characteristics and campaign activities (Høyland et al., 2019, p. 6). Therefore, MEPs in
candidate-centred systems are more likely to spend time in their constituencies (and less on
legislative activities) as there is a greater need to spend time developing a constituency profile
to ensure re-election. Party leaderships, on the contrary, take notice of politicians’ legislative
activity, less so of their performance in their constituencies. In party-centred systems,

    See for instance

politicians have less interest to spend time in their constituencies, because it matters little for
re-election; rather they need to remain on good terms with the party so as to be put on the list
again (Høyland et al., 2019, p. 2).
Hence, we find a lack of an electoral connection to the European Parliament. This prevents a
genuine accountability of the EP to the EU electorate and raises doubts about the
representative character of members of European Parliament.

3.     The Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidate) procedure

To make the EP elections more genuinely ‘European’ by facilitating campaigns around
European issues and steered by European politicians is a permanent, seemingly unreachable,
goal. Many ideas to go beyond the second order/national election model have been floated,
such as the above-mentioned transnational list, attempts to increase the visibility of European
political parties, or the harmonisation of electoral practices across member states. 8 One
novelty in the recent past was the introduction of the Spitzenkandidaten system. For the 2014
elections, most party groups appointed Spitzenkandidaten (German for lead candidate)
agreeing that the candidate of the party group winning the most seats in the elections would
become the president of the European Commission. Up until then, the European Council
nominated this candidate behind closed doors. In 2014, according to the Spitzenkandidaten
procedure, the votes of the citizens translated (indirectly) into choosing who would become
the president of the Commission – meaning executive power was at stake for the first time in
EP elections.
This procedure is copied from national parliamentary systems (in particular the German
example), in which the citizens do not directly elect the head of state, but instead the members
of parliament – who in turn elect the head of the executive. To give some electoral certainty,
the respective parties announce the candidates to head their respective lists with the promise
that this person would be chosen as head of government in the event of electoral victory. The
lead candidate procedure is a good example of a national institutional practice that has been
applied to the EU level in the expectation of similar positive effects, while ignoring the different
setting of the EU. In other words, the lead candidate procedure exemplifies the different
institutional DNA of the European Parliament.
By aiming to make executive power the prize in the EP elections, the Spitzenkandidaten
procedure seeks to raise awareness for those elections and European issues in general. The
idea is that the different candidates launch a pan-European election campaign in order to
introduce themselves to citizens in all member states and present the position of their EU-level
political groups (Schulze, 2016, p. 24). The personalisation of candidates can generally (that is
at national level) enhance elections by informing and mobilising voters. This was also expected
to happen with the EP election, to personalise the EP election campaign with the nomination


of Spitzenkandidaten and boost voter turnout (Schulze, 2016, p. 24). It has been suggested that
open and rival candidacies for the position of Commission president would liven up the
electoral competition and “allow a greater connection between voters’ preferences and
coalitions and alignments in the EU institutions” (Follesdal & Hix, 2006, p. 553). In short, the
aim was to increase the stakes of the European elections and personalise European politics,
thereby increasing voter turnout and ultimately strengthening democratic (input) legitimacy.
However, this system did not have any tangible effect. As mentioned above, voter turnout hit
an all-time low and research has shown that voters were largely unaware of a) the lead
candidate system as such (i.e. that their vote indirectly translated into the choice of Commission
president) and b) the individual candidates, particularly outside their own home countries
(Hobolt, 2014). 9 The awareness of indirect support for one candidate was highest in
Luxembourg, France and Germany and (74.8%, 63.3% and 60% respectively). Awareness was
significantly lower in northern and eastern countries (35.2% on average), with the lowest level
of knowledge in the UK, at 13.9%. Unsurprisingly, this study shows that knowledge of specific
candidates was highest in the home countries of the (key) candidates: about 55% of voters in
Luxembourg and 25% in Germany and Belgium could name one or more candidates. However,
in the other member states the average was 8.2%. Again, the UK took the rear with only 1.1%
of voters being able to recognise a candidate. 10
The debates around key policy issues (such as migration) were not shaped by the lead
candidates, but rather by anti-establishment and Eurosceptic parties (Hobolt, 2014, pp. 1536–
1537). “Neither pre-election campaigning nor post-election decision-making delivered greater
party-political competition or a genuine choice between rival political programmes”
(Christiansen, 2016, p. 1007). Instead, the 2014 elections perpetuated the long-term trend of
close cooperation between pro-integrationist parties at the centre of the political spectrum.
Candidates were more prone to campaign in countries where they were already known, and
where it was hoped their appearance would have a positive effect on the electorate (Schmitt,
Hobolt, & Popa, 2015). Furthermore, bigger member states were in higher demand, as the
population size matters in terms of campaigning: the bigger the country, the more seats in the
EP up for grabs. Germany by far, but also France and Belgium were therefore the most
attractive countries to campaign in (Christiansen, 2016). Furthermore, studies on visibility and
media coverage for the candidates have shown that the media did not promote the system:
the EP elections were in general not very present and the Spitzenkandidaten appeared more as
a “side issue” (Schulze, 2016).
So, the Spitzenkandidaten system had no positive effect on turnout, nor on the second order
national election character of the EP elections. It therefore proved unable to improve either

 Based on an AECR-commissioned post-election survey in 15 member states, where voters and non-voters were
asked directly after the elections about the degree of awareness of the political parties and candidates at the
European level. Found in (Hobolt, 2014, p. 1536).
  These low numbers for the UK are partly explainable by the opposition of all three main British parties to the
lead candidate system and their refusal to let the candidates campaign (Christiansen, 2016).

the representativeness or accountability of the EP. Hence, the system is no democratic success;
the only effect it triggered was institutional in nature, as the EP successfully enhanced its own
influence in selecting the Commission president and therefore slightly altered the EU’s
interinstitutional dynamic (Hobolt, 2014). In the 2019 election campaign, most political groups
have selected a candidate to campaign across Europe. However, the system seems to have lost
its momentum. It is significantly weakened institutionally compared to last time because one
of most important political groups, ALDE, is not participating while one of the most important
EU leaders, Macron, is not supporting it. Ironically, both are intertwined.
The Spitzenkandidaten system implicitly promotes the ‘parliamentarisation’ of the EU and a
federal model of European democracy, in which the EP receives a democratic mandate from
the electorate to select the executive – and the ultimately hold the executive accountable.
Hence, the Spitzenkandidaten system was an attempt to build a quasi-parliamentary system
(Hobolt, 2015, 1537). The EU, however, is not a genuine parliamentary system. The institutional
setup of the EU as a hybrid polity entails structural limitations in which key areas of decision-
making remain in the hands of national governments as “constituent actors” (Fabbrini, 2015,
p. 573). Therefore, the Commission is in no way the ‘parliamentary government’ that advocates
of the Spitzenkandidaten process had expected. A parliamentary government implies political
fusion and institutional interdependence between the legislature and the executive (Fabbrini,
2015, 532).
The Spitzenkandidaten system does not really help to close the gap between the legislative and
the executive branches, also because the system itself is institutionally illogical: the procedure
only extends to the Commission president, not to the whole executive – the appointment of
the other members of the college follows a different logic: even if the president attributes their
portfolios, they are selected by their respective national governments. Another institutional
‘flaw’, which exemplifies further the gap between the legislative and executive, is the fact that
the candidates that run for Commission presidency are not required to stand for EP elections.
The Lisbon Treaty even excludes this option by stating that members of the college are not
allowed to hold any other offices (Art. 245 TFEU). The parliamentary status of the executive’s
members is, however, a “crucial tenet of the parliamentary model” (Fabbrini, 2015, p. 578). A
further key element for a genuine parliamentary democracy is that voters should be able to
assess the performance of individual MEPs, which is hardly the case at the EU level, as this
analysis has shown.


In an attempt to ascertain the state of representative democracy at the European level, this
chapter investigated the European Parliament by looking into the main institutional differences
compared to national parliaments, and the Spitzenkanididaten procedure as a way to elect the
president of the European Commission.
The European Parliament has expanded its scope of responsibility enormously, obtaining
significant powers regarding the EU budget, law-making, as well as control over the executive.

Despite the growing importance of this institution, the elections to the European Parliament
continue to suffer from the traditional second-order national election phenomenon, which is
characterised by low turnout and notoriously little interest in European issues and European
politicians. This is a trend which has held since the very first direct elections in 1979 and,
drawing on the experience of 2014, there seems little chance the 2019 elections will be any
different, as neither more salient issues (such as the migration crisis) nor the Spitzenkandidaten
procedure have appeared to have any significant impact.
The EP’s DNA is significantly different to that of national parliaments. Above all, the missing
links between first, national parties and Europarties and second, the EU’s legislative and
executive, and third, MEPs and their constituencies create a major gap between the EP and EU
citizens. This gap is so wide that it prevents the EP from properly representing the European
The Spitzenkandidaten system was introduced to improve the representative character of the
EP, but has remained without effect as it has not increased the visibility of EP elections or
created a greater electoral connection. Its lack of success further exemplifies the yawning gap
between the EU and its citizens. Mechanisms such as the Spitzenkandidaten procedure, and
more generally the attempt to ‘parliamentarise’ the EU (a hybrid sui generis entity), do not do
justice to the sophisticated institutional structure of the EU and therefore do not make the EP
a better representative of the EU electorate.

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Wallace, H. (1985), Europe: The Challenge of Diversity, Boston, Massachussets: Routledge.
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